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This Pastor Is On A Crusade To Get His Congregation Vaccinated

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Oregon is about to drop pandemic restrictions. Close to 70% of people there have had at least their first shot, and that's the threshold the governor set for reopening the state. But that number doesn't tell the whole story. There's a racial gap in the vaccination rate. Katia Riddle reports on a church trying to help close that gap.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: There's been a feverish countdown in Oregon to unmasking day, with media and state leaders announcing every percentage point change in vaccination rates. But excitement is not the mood at Highland Christian Center.

SHON NEYLAND: It feels like a war. It feels like it is a war of attrition.

RIDDLE: Pastor Shon Neyland was a chaplain in Iraq and Afghanistan before he retired from the Air Force to pastor this church. One of the biggest, mostly Black churches in Portland, it takes up a whole city block and has its own bookstore and coffee shop. Neyland's fighting an invisible enemy now - the forces keeping his congregants from getting the vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEYLAND: It is so important to get vaccinated.

RIDDLE: He posts videos like this one on his church's Facebook page and shows them at services. Neyland estimates at least half of his congregation still isn't vaccinated. Dropped restrictions once the state reaches 70% could mean hundreds of unvaccinated, unmasked people attending his Sunday service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEYLAND: I got an urgent prayer message this morning to pray for a person who is critically ill with COVID right now. Well, we cannot let up.

RIDDLE: But exhorting them from the pulpit, says Neyland, is not enough. His secret weapon in this fight is community health worker Teresa Johnson, greeting people at the Sunday service.

TERESA JOHNSON: Good morning, first lady. Any signs or symptoms of COVID-19?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, not today (unintelligible).

JOHNSON: All right. Well, come on in.

RIDDLE: Johnson works full time on getting the congregation vaccinated. She says those who still aren't are resisting.

JOHNSON: I'd listen to them. I listen to why they are feeling the way they feeling.

RIDDLE: Johnson recently found herself listening at a used car dealership on the outskirts of town where, on this day, staff are buying cars at an auction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Twenty-nine and a three and a one and a two and a three and a four.

RIDDLE: When Johnson came here some weeks ago, it was to take care of some personal car business. But she ran into and got chatting with Towanda Perry, member of the church, who works there. Perry was dead set against the vaccine.

TOWANDA PERRY: Scary - and you don't trust the nurse. You don't trust the doctor. You don't trust the person who's going to give you the shot. You don't even know them. You don't know what's in that tube.

RIDDLE: Perry had three high-risk pregnancies. She says after those experiences, she doesn't believe the medical establishment has her best interests in mind or those of her community.

PERRY: It's just a lot of darkness for me.

RIDDLE: Johnson heard Perry's fears one by one that day at the car dealership.

JOHNSON: Do you need me to sit with you and hold your hand? 'Cause I will. And she was like, no. I mean, yeah, that's part of it. And then I was like, OK, so I'll sit with you. Now what?

JESSICA GUERNSEY: When you're doing equity work, it is quality over quantity.

RIDDLE: Jessica Guernsey is the director of public health for Multnomah County. Guernsey says trust-building takes time in communities of color. She wishes the state had prioritized it earlier.

GUERNSEY: This gets to an issue that we really, to be honest, like, got jammed up with in Oregon in terms of the state vaccine framework.

RIDDLE: To double down on this effort, the county has been working to foster the kind of individualized, community-led effort that's happening at Highland. In fact, the public health department runs a vaccine clinic right out of the church. Member Towanda Perry eventually changed her mind. She says being able to get her shot right at the church made all the difference.

PERRY: And then I looked down the hallway. There was Teresa with her smiling face along with my pastor's daughter, another smiling face. So I'm like, OK. They wouldn't be letting us go down the wrong road.

RIDDLE: Perry says she's relieved she got her shot. Had she waited one more day, she would have lost her nerve.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.